Q&A: Christine Roberts, Director of Audience Development @ Axios

This week, The Idea caught up with Christine Roberts, who runs the Audience Development team at Axios. We talked about how Axios sees its audience, organic growth channels for the company, and what her team is interested in doing next.

Can you give us a description of the audience development team at Axios and your role as Director?

Our audience team is split into three different focuses. The first is organic growth and distribution; that’s the team that I lead. We’re focused on making sure that our coverage reaches the broadest audience possible, and, once that audience visits our site, keeping them engaged using a constant testing and learning approach.

Another core part of the audience team is focused on paid acquisition and growing our newsletter subscriber base. They also focus a lot on the life cycle of our newsletter subscribers — from on-boarding to engaging them throughout their experience at Axios.

A third part of our audience team is data analytics. I work closely with that team on providing editorial insights to the newsroom around what stories and coverage areas are working well with our audiences and which content areas we should explore further.

Where does the audience development team sit within the larger organization and how do you collaborate across departments?

Given that audience-first is part of Axios’ mission statement, our team touches many parts of the organization — primarily editorial, product, and marketing. We work to infuse audience-first thinking across the entire company. For example, in addition to our day to day work with editorial, we collaborate with that team on strategies to create long term growth for the company. So one particular initiative we’ve been working on recently is our weekend Deep Dives, which provide an all-encompassing look at the key topics that will affect our future.

We also have a very strong relationship with our product and tech team because we work hand in hand on a lot of the audience engagement initiatives and testing that we do on the site. We work with them quite regularly.

And then we also work very closely with our marketing and external affairs teams to provide insights into messaging that has resonated with our readers off-platform, so that we can further inform how we brand ourselves to our audience and further amplify our events.

As Jim VandeHei and Roy Schwartz mentioned in their recent Vanity Fair interview, advertising has been a really effective model for Axios, partly because of the specific audience that Axios has been able to build. What does audience development mean within that type of business model? How you define your target audience?

Generally, we think of our audience as current and future decision makers. We break that out into three different groups. The first group is “Elites,” so CEOs or policy makers. The second group would be “Smart Professionals,” so again, key decision makers at their respective institutions. And then the third group that we focus on a lot is “Aspirational Leaders,” so either people who have just graduated college or are getting ready to graduate or are young professionals who are just kicking off their careers.

The reason why we think about our audience that way has to do with the way we define Axios — it’s a news and information platform that helps people quickly and deeply understand the most consequential topics in the world. The people that need that information to be successful in their careers are really within those three audience groups, so we find a lot of natural alignment between the type of coverage that we’re doing and the audiences that we’re trying to reach.

We also have great conviction that if we can achieve our goal of being indispensable to this audience, we will be able to find both advertising and non-advertising models to support our work.

You mentioned that you lead organic growth for Axios. What are some of the channels that you use to grow those audiences that you just mentioned?

Somewhat of an experiment that we launched over the summer is our Instagram account. Before launch, we thought a lot about how we could differentiate ourselves on the platform and drive some of Axios’ core principles, one of which is what has made our newsletters so special, and that is that each of them are helmed by subject matter experts. So we were looking for ways to really showcase those experts and give our audience an opportunity to get to know the people behind the newsletters.

One thing you’ll see us do on our Instagram account is that we do a lot of Instagram stories with our newsletter writers, either having them answer questions from our audience or having them talk about the news of the day, and we view that as a growth tactic because we hope that if people start to see the experts behind those newsletters, they’ll be more encouraged to sign up. You’ll see us direct to the newsletters at the end of every Instagram story.

How do decide which platforms to prioritize and which align with Axios’ overall strategy?

We are still somewhat of a small organization, so we have to be pretty strategic about which new platforms we explore and different experiments that we run, but we really come back to the things that make Axios different. As I mentioned, one area is our expert driven newsletters, so if there are opportunities for us across social to highlight the people behind those emails, then that’s a natural platform or opportunity for us to explore.

The other thing that we look at quite frequently is whether we can bring smart brevity to the platform. Smart brevity is a core tenet of Axios and what it really means is delivering readers the news and why it matters in the most efficient way possible. So if we can find ways to do that, either on Instagram or Reddit or other platforms in an interesting way, then we will pursue that opportunity.

An example of how we’re approaching smart brevity on Instagram is doing text overlays on our illustrations. We found that to be a very effective strategy in capturing our audience’s attention and conveying the key details of our coverage in an Instagram-native format.

We really think about audience development within those two core areas — bringing more attention to our newsletter writers and also extending the reach of our signature smart brevity format.

How do you apply that approach to news aggregation apps?

We work very closely with Apple News and with Flipboard. We’re also on SmartNews. The way smart brevity comes across there is we’re sending them our content that is always packaged in a smart brevity format.

In the past, we’ve had some interesting partnerships with Apple News and with Flipboard, particularly around the 2018 midterm elections. We did a dedicated weekly package for Apple News around the biggest topics driving the midterms, and similar for Flipboard as well — we had a midterms magazine that they featured.

That’s something that we look to do with each platform — think about ways that we could partner on our core content areas so that we can provide our insight and informed coverage.

Have those platforms been a driver of traffic for you or a growth tactic in other ways?

They’ve been incredibly helpful. The way we think about growing our audience is really from a funnel approach. I focus a lot on the broad reach at the top of the funnel, which includes platforms like Apple News and Flipboard. Our hope is if we’re able to reach audiences on those platforms and introduce them to the Axios brand, then we can start to find ways to get them to visit our site regularly, with the ultimate end goal of having them subscribe to one of our newsletters since we’ve found those to be such a successful product-market fit.

Is there anything you’re interested in learning more about?

There are a few things that we’re really interested in exploring. The first is messaging apps. Because we’ve seen success with our newsletters, we’re interested in using messaging apps as a way to convey that same information in a more conversational format. That’s something that is super interesting and very early to us, but something that we would like to explore.

Similarly, with voice assistant devices, we’re starting to think about what Axios content would sound like there. I think that’s a particularly natural fit for our smart brevity format because our main goal is to get people caught up on the news in under 10 minutes or less (we call it the “smarter, faster” model) and I think there’s a big opportunity to do that through audio.

What’s the most interesting thing you’ve seen from a media outlet other than your own?

It’s been really interesting to watch how The Information has grown and developed content offerings that fulfill the needs of its core audience. For example, something that I think is really cool is the organizational charts they offer as part of their yearly subscription. I think that’s a very smart way to provide a clear use case that can convert potential subscribers, and is smart from an analytics point of view as well, because it’s clear that they’re looking at different strategies on a leads-generated basis, not on a total traffic basis. It’s a very cool offering on their part and I think they’re doing a lot of interesting things in the audience-growth sphere.